States Go After Smoking in Vehicles With Kids

 

Thirteen states ban smoking in most public places and workplaces, including bars and restaurants, to protect people from puffs of others' cigarettes. But now there's a move afoot to fence off the private space inside a motor vehicle if children are present.

Arkansas pioneered the policy in April 2006 after state Rep. Bob Mathis (D) introduced a bill to shield children strapped in car seats from secondhand smoke. Critics didn't believe his proposal would go anywhere, but the Legislature passed it overwhelmingly in less than two days. And then-Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), a reformed health enthusiast, signed it.

Louisiana in August became the second state to ban smoking in vehicles carrying a child in a car seat. The city of Bangor, Maine, in January went even further by banning smoking in vehicles carrying anyone under 18. The law allows police officers to make a traffic stop if they observe a violation.

Moves to ban smoking in vehicles mark a potential new phase in the nation's crackdown against smokers as the case against secondhand smoke builds. Last year, U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona said there is no safe level of secondhand smoke. Harvard University researchers found in October that secondhand smoke in vehicles is hazardous to children even with the window slightly rolled down.

While Maine is not considering turning Bangor's ordinance into a statewide ban, lawmakers in four other New England states - Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Vermont - picked up on the idea. Rhode Island state Sen. V. Susan Sosnowski (D) credited Bangor as the inspiration for her bill. In Connecticut, state Rep. Henry Genga (D) got the idea through an e-mail from a 10-year-old constituent and modeled his plan on the Maine city's approach.

At least 14 legislatures have introduced bills to ban smoking in vehicles in the last six months.

The trend began in 1998 when California became the first state to outlaw smoking in workplaces. Delaware followed suit in 2002, and 11 more states have since mandated broad bans against smoking in public places and workplaces, according to an American Lung Association report released in January. At least three other states have passed similar bans that have yet to take full effect, and many have smoking restrictions of some kind.

Legislators are pushing for their bills to protect underage passengers without much help: Anti-smoking groups aren't rushing to support them. Spokesmen from the American Lung Association, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights said some bills' penalties would be too harsh. Education, not punishment, should be the focus of any campaign against secondhand smoke, they said.

"Yes, the environment is more conducive to this legislation, but it's being presented in a way that makes people angry," said Joel Spivak, a spokesman for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids . "This isn't really about punishing people or putting them in jail. What it's about is protecting the health of children."

Bills pending in Montana , Arizona and California are the most restrictive. They would apply to smoking in vehicles carrying children up to 17 years old. In other states, the bans would apply only if the children were in car seats. In most of those states, that includes passengers younger than 6 years old who weigh less than 60 pounds.

If the bills were to become law, first-time violators could only be warned in Kansas, while in New Jersey and New York they could get slapped with a $500 fine. On the third offense in the same year in New York, drivers could be fined up to $1,500 or jailed for 10 days.

Smokers and privacy-rights activists nationwide dubbed the legislation an invasion of personal property that's based on a lack of scientific proof. Gary Nolan, Ohio director of pro-smoking advocacy group The Smokers' Club Inc. , said that there are "more carcinogens in a burnt steak than in secondhand smoke" and that "secondhand smoke has never hurt anyone."

"This will give law enforcement cause to pull anyone over who's smoking," Nolan said. "It's big government, and they've gone too far."

Pennsylvania state Rep. Peter Daley (D) said he was the first in the nation to propose a ban on smoking in vehicles carrying children - in 1988, after he had a cancer removed from his throat that he blamed on whiffs from his mother's cigarettes. Then, he said, he was "all but burned at the stake," and newspapers called him "off-the-wall bizarre." The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania ardently opposed his legislation in 1988, and it went nowhere.

Daley is trying again this year with a bill that would outlaw smoking in vehicles carrying children who are strapped in a car seat.

The ACLU hasn't yet taken a stand against the newest bill but most likely will fight it again, according to Larry Frankel, legislative director at the Philadelphia office.

"When are we going to stop and draw the line?" Frankel said. "At some level, the people have to be responsible for what they do. We shouldn't use the law to enforce what we think is better behavior."

 
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